Saturday, March 14, 2009

Pakistan in Turmoil

History repeats itself, the first time as tragedy and second time as farce. This famous dictum of the great German socialist thinker, Karl Marx, is nowhere more applicable than in Pakistan where politics is getting coursier and coursier. The country at present appears to be on the edge of a precipice yet again. Its fresh experiment with democracy is doomed to failure. Extremists and terrorists have captured significant portions of the country's western border areas. Political brinkmanship is pushing the rest of the country into turmoil. Streets of Punjab are witnessing the return of unrest and violence. Pakistan is seething, simmering and slowly disintegrating from its edges. A reluctant and bruised Army is waiting at the doorsteps. There are strong apprehensions of a coup, barely a year after the last military regime exited.

With events overtaking hopes with such a dizzying speed, predicting the immediate future of Pakistan will be like writing on sand. Few assumptions can, however, be made, both for the short and long term, without being swept away by the turbulent events which are likely to intensify in the days ahead. The extremist Islamist groups have scored one quick success after another, making the Government look weak and powerless. The country’s state of economy is parlous.

Current Crisis
At the heart of the current political crisis are political differences between President Asif Ali Zardari and former Prime Minister and the Pakistan Muslim League (N) supremo Nawaz Sharif over restoring deposed Supreme Court Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhary, which is seen as an unfinished business ever since former President Pervez Musharraf dismissed the latter along with some other judges and anointed his favourities to this critical pillar so crucial for the success of a democracy.

The recent Supreme Court judgment barring Nawaz Sharif and his brother Shahbaz Sharif from contesting elections that led to the latter’s removal from the post of Punjab Chief Minister followed by imposition of Governor’s rule has precipitated the political stand off between Nawaz Sharif and Zardari whose control over Pakistan is tenuous.

Fears of a Possible Army Takeover
Keeping the present crisis in mind, fears of a possible Army takeover in the backdrop of the political unrest — as has happened many times before — will be more difficult to allay. So far Pakistani Army Chief Ashfaq Parvez Kayani has kept his men in the barracks, but all that could change in the blink of an eye. Nonetheless, another military coup in Islamabad is the last thing that anybody wants. Not only will it stifle civil rights in Pakistan but also destroy the fragile gains that have been made to strengthen democratic institutions in that country since the 2008 general elections.

Besides, had military dictatorship been the solution to Pakistan’s woes, the country would not have found itself in the chaotic situation it is in today. The present crisis is a manifestation of the old, bitter rivalry between the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) and Nawaz Sharif that was at its zenith during the 1990s before the Bhuttos and the PML(N) leader were forced to leave Pakistan.

But if all fails, it remains to be seen whether the Pakistan Army will step in again even though Mr Sharif has completely ruled it out. If, however, it does, this time it will be a stretched Pakistan Army, which, despite its deployment of 120,000 troops, has not been able to control the Swat Valley and is accused of only half-heartedly helping the US in its War on Terror.

Role of International Community
The international community, at large, must stand behind a return to constitutional and democratic processes in Pakistan. It is not unlikely that the US will bless a change of guard in Pakistan if it can do so decently, without being overtly embroiled.

As far as India is concerned, it has no leverage, whatsoever, in Islamabad. . India has no option but to reinforce border security even as it prepares for national elections. The smallest miscalculation in Pakistan can tempt the armed Islamist contingents to attempt a misadventure. India would also need to exert regional and international diplomacy to head off any negative spillovers from Islamabad. What should be more worrying to India is that peace and stability in Pakistan can never be taken for granted. There are too many negatives at work in the country.

Although there are strong rumours of an army coup General Kayani, has stayed out of politics so far and may not be too keen to return as another Musharraf avatar so soon after Musharraf flamed out. In case he is keen, he must be severely discouraged from that line of thinking.

Moreover, the international community must also stop trying to pick winners in Pakistan. Nawaz Sharif has poor relations with the army as well as with western powers. The US, in particular, sees Nawaz Sharif as suspiciously close to the Islamist parties. But the Swat surrender is evidence Zardari has not been strong either in terms of taking on fundamentalists. Whosoever comes to and retains power through a democratic process, on the other hand, would have to be accountable for public welfare, which provides the international community with enough pressure points to work with that person.

The Other View
Another certainty is the street power of the middle-class in Pakistan. This is a new phenomenon and is likely to gather momentum as the country struggles with its past follies. In 2007, when lawyers and others came out on the streets after Pervez Musharraf sacked the Supreme Court Chief Justice, many thought it to be a short-lived phenomenon. When the street protests brought down the once-powerful Musharraf to his knees within months, it was quite clear that people had won over the military.

The present round of street protests has naturally raised the spectre of a repeat of 2007, which is not exactly against Zardari alone but, must remember, is built on the demand for the restoration of the judiciary. This has far too deeper ramifications than merely political.

If events turn out in favour of the Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gillani against Zardari, it would be the second blow for the PPP, the only political party in Pakistan with support bases across all provinces which has stood up, despite its feudal hierarchy and functioning, against the complete military takeover of the country's political process. The first was the brutal assassination of Benazir Bhutto and the mantle of leadership falling in the laps of Zardari, a corrupt manipulator whose survival instincts have so far been a shade better than a cockroach.

Creating National Consensus
Pakistan will have to create a genuine national consensus to fight the real threat-- global terrorism. Regional differences and rivalries in India get submerged because the nation is so large. No bilateral or trilateral animosity between states gets out of hand because there are many other states to dilute resentments. Pakistan lacks that advantage. So can Pakistan avoid balkanization? There is one way that suggests itself. Pakistan can stabilise if it throws its lot with India without inhibition and mistrust.
For starters the war against terrorism is the obvious basis for a sincere joint Indo-Pak cooperation. Contrary to popular perception in the West, Pakistan’s strategy in Swat and Bajaur is working. When critics ridicule good Taliban and bad Taliban they betray their ignorance. The division is between Pashtuns, who mostly comprise the Taliban, and the Al Qaeda, who are mostly Wahabi Arabs of foreign origin. There are clear indications that with patience and tact the two can be separated.

Future Ahead
It is again a dark hour for Pakistan, where only the common people of the country are the ultimate sufferers. The crisis in Pakistan will not go away unless its fundamental cause is recognised. In fact, it is an artificial state with irrational borders. From day one it suffered from a crisis of identity. This problem can be addressed only if its leaders summon the courage to accept this truth. In the current squabbling between the petty politicians of Pakistan, who act like clones of their Indian counterparts, there lies an unspoken cause of the schism. Consider briefly the sequence of events.

The present turmoil in Pakistan cannot be taken lightly. A continued political tussle between Nawaz Sharif and Zardari will leave the door ajar for non-democratic forces to take over Islamabad. Also, it does nothing to stem the rising tide of radical Islamism in Pakistan; indeed, it could lead to Islamabad yielding more ground to the Taliban and its ilk. Thus, it is extremely important that the PPP and the PML(N) find some common ground and end the present unrest. They might not realise it at the moment, but both the parties need to work together to keep the Army and the radical Islamists at bay.

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